Combating inequality with the ballot

In 2016, voters can make real change on health care, wages

NEXT YEAR, THOUSANDS of residents across the Commonwealth will head to the polls to cast their vote in the November election. They will make their voices heard on a variety of issues, perhaps none more critical than the widening gap that continues to grow between the super-rich and everyone else.

It’s been a year and a half since workers from across different industries in Massachusetts gathered together to protest growing income inequality for the first time as part of the Fight for $15.

These workers – from health care facilities and home care programs, big-box stores, local colleges and universities, Logan Airport, and restaurants – stood up, hit the streets raised their voices and announced to the Commonwealth that this country is long overdue for change. Because there is something wrong when men and women work full-time but still live in poverty.

Since then, workers have played a key role in passing legislation to create a domestic workers bill of rights and increase the minimum wage, while also ensuring earned sick time for all workers at the ballot.

And just this past summer, 35,000 personal care attendants across Massachusetts signed an agreement to be paid $15 per hour – the first union of caregivers in the nation to secure a true living wage. Thousands of other agency home care workers have filed legislation to win the same.

These victories are wins for the American labor movement, which has recorded a number of key victories in Massachusetts over the past decade – many of them made possible by workers in the Commonwealth’s largest industry, health care.

It was 10 years ago this month that 10,000 workers came together to form the Massachusetts branch of what is today the largest and fastest growing union in America: 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

In just 10 years, the number of healthcare workers who are part of 1199SEIU has grown more than 500 percent, reaching 52,000 members from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. That level of growth is unprecedented and has helped raise standards for working people within and beyond the health care industry.

1199SEIU members in the health care field have recorded many victories – including health care reform, the largest organizing vote and hospital organizing drive in the history of New England, and hundreds of contracts that enhance patient care and provide new opportunities to working people.

Despite this progress, our state and our nation are at a crossroads. More than 1 million Massachusetts workers will go to work today making far below a living wage of $15 an hour. In fact, a recent study from the National Employment Law Foundation found that 42 percent of working Americans earn less than $15 per hour – yet another glaring sign that our economy is seriously out of balance.

In Massachusetts, one of the most expensive states to live in, we’re not doing much better than the national average. More than 36 percent of workers here – over 1.2 million people – earn less than $15 per hour, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A disproportionate number of these workers are women and people of color.

Many of these men and women have worked for years at the same job — with little to show for it. Together, they form a largely untapped voter group, one that can make a difference on a variety of issues slated to appear on the ballot next November. Among these will be a “Fair Care” ballot question that would make the Massachusetts hospital industry stronger by reining in the most expensive health providers. They will also have the opportunity to vote for state candidates who support bills that would create a pathway to a $15 per hour wage for workers in a variety of industries. And at the national level, workers can support candidates who are committed to addressing issues of wage inequality.

During the next year, 1199SEIU will continue to empower workers in Massachusetts around these issues and those of higher pay, union rights, improved child care and home care, racial justice and immigration reform – issues underpaid workers have identified as key factors in the next election.

Meet the Author

There is a lot of work ahead, but as this past decade shows, meaningful victories are attainable. In a decade of many firsts, we know that the next key battleground is the fight for wage equality and better opportunities for working people – fights we must win both in the workplace and at the ballot box.

Veronica Turner is the executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents 52,000 health care workers throughout Massachusetts and nearly 400,000 workers across the East Coast.